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Understanding Ancient Laughter



Rob Hardy


Here's one that had them laughing in the olden times. "Doctor," says the patient, "whenever I get up from my sleep, for half an hour, I feel dizzy, and then I'm all right." And the doctor says, "Get up half an hour later." This joke worked in ancient Rome 2000 years ago; I hadn't heard it before, but it reminds me of, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this," and the doctor says, "Then don't do that." I bet that second one would have had them rolling in the aisles at the Colosseum, too. But most of the stuff of laughter in Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (University of California Press) I didn't find funny, and Mary Beard has good explanations for why what amused the Romans often fails to amuse us. So her book isn't particularly funny, and that's not surprising; Beard is able to write with wit and good humor, but she is a serious classicist with scads of books and papers to her name. Even with all her erudition, she has to remind us repeatedly that there is much that we do not understand about Roman society, language, and humor. You can read hundreds of books on Roman emperors and conquests; this represents a valiant attempt to bring a little understanding of a smaller, but no less important, part of what made Rome run. 




Laughter we think of as one of the hallmarks of what it is to be human, although Beard does mention modern studies of what might be an equivalent of laughter in primates, dogs, and even rats. Aristotle, who thought about everything, thought that laughing was a defining characteristic of human beings, although he might have thought that herons (of all things) laugh as well. Roman writers reflected Aristotelian thought about laughter. We'd know more about what Aristotle thought if we had his second book in Poetics; the first covered tragedy, and we have that one, but the one about comedy is one of the most longed-for lost books of the ancient world. In other pages, Aristotle presented a "Goldilocks" view of humor; one must aim for having some humor, especially wittiness, but too much joking was the mark of a buffoon. Aristotle counted laughter as among the pleasant things of life, but he realized that it could be derisory or abusive. There is, however, no systematic "Aristotelian theory of laughter," and no subsequent "classical theory of laughter," although some of Beard's fellow classicists seem to have thought so. Beard does go into the different ancient and modern theories of humor, but all of them explain something and none of them explains everything; it is not surprising that laughter should be fundamentally mysterious. 




Nonetheless, Cicero had ideas about humor that showed the sort of split view Romans had of it. He knew, for instance, that a fine way to kill a joke was to explain it, to pick it apart to see what was funny in it. His treatise On the Orator contains a long section about laughter, which Beard says is "the most substantial, sustained, and challenging discussion of laughter, in any of its aspects, to have survived from the ancient world" (and she includes Aristotle). The elite orator might attempt humor to gain the goodwill of the audience, to relieve the dryness of his speech, or to ridicule an opponent. People laughed at clowns, but their vulgar humor (pulling faces and obscenity) was not to be touched by the orator. And any time an orator brought laughter, he risked being thought a clown or like one of the actors who performed just to get a laugh. Cicero taught that there was little worse than an orator going for a laugh just for the sake of it. Plus, there was always the risk that the crowd would be laughing at the orator, not with him. Beard tells a story from Plutarch about Cicero, who as consul was speaking on behalf of a defendant and thus speaking against the younger Cato who was one of the prosecutors. Cicero made fun of some of the absurdities of Cato's philosophical system Stoicism. The audience, and the judges, laughed at the performance, which got the simple rejoinder from Cato, "What a geloios we have for a consul." That's a Greek version of what was said, and we don't have the original Latin. "What a comedian we have for a consul," is one way of translating it, but Beard points out that the original may have called Cicero a "ridiculus consul," with ridiculus ambivalently meaning "one who prompts laughter" as in being witty, or "one who should be laughed at." The Romans seem to have had a great deal of worry that the one who makes the joke could also be thought the butt of it. 




The subjects of jokes that made the Romans laugh will often strike us as strange. Suetonius writes of Caligula, "At one of his more lavish banquets he suddenly collapsed into a fit of guffaws. The consuls who were reclining next to him asked him politely why he was laughing. 'Only at the idea that at one nod from me, both of you could have your throats cut instantly.'" Perhaps they laughed nervously in response; Caligula did find good fun in murdering people. Baldness was an easy instigator for laughter; to joke about blindness was to go too far, but baldness seemed a height of risibility. Julius Caesar's baldness was a source of jokes, and he knew it, and practiced a form of comb-over, or wore his laurel leaves just so. But when Caesar came triumphantly back in 46 BCE, a ribald song ran, "Romans, lock up your wives. The bald adulterer's back in town." Then there was the knee-slapper "about the man from Abdera who saw a runner being crucified and quipped, 'He's no longer running, but flying.'" Beard notes that this one, like other jokes, now seems less funny "because of an unbridgeable gap between some of antiquity's conventions of joking and our own. Crucifixion, for example, does not have a big part in the modern comic repertoire." Another source of our lack of understanding has to be context, which at this distance we can never fully comprehend. There are those who say, for instance, that the famous mosaic of a chained dog at the house of the tragic poet, with the menacing motto CAVE CANEM was not really a warning, but a joke that the dog was only a picture of a dog. I guess you just had to be there. 




Beard admits, "The laughter of the past is always likely to frustrate our most determined efforts to systematize and control it. Anyone who - with a straight face - claims to be able to offer a clear account of why or how or when Romans laughed is bound to be oversimplifying." Even so, she provokes us into thinking that perhaps the Romans invented the joke. "I have become increasingly convinced that the reason we can laugh along with the ancient Romans is because it is from them that - in part at least - we have learned how to laugh and what to laugh at." This is particularly clear in some of the selections she draws from a Roman joke book, the Philogelos ("laughter lover"). The book was the source of a stand-up routine for a modern British comedian a few years ago, and part of the fun was that the audience was laughing at itself for laughing at jokes that were probably old when they were first written down two millennia ago. But the span of time might be a minimal obstruction. Some collections of humor include the story of Enoch Powell, a politician and wit, who replied to a chatty barber's, "How shall I cut your hair, sir?" with the reply, "In silence." It's not Powell's original joke, but maybe he especially enjoyed that he knew where it came from and those who repeated the story about him did not. He was a classicist himself, and the joke is from Philogelos.



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